You might think nothing could top Hannibal Lecter when it comes to playing evil villains, but Dundee acting legend Brian Cox reckons there’s one character he portrayed tops the Chianti-swilling cannibal.
Killearn, the malignant factor in Rob Roy – celebrating its 25th anniversary this year – outmatches Lecter in terms of nastiness says the Hollywood star.
“I have played a lot of unpleasant people, but he is probably one of the most unpleasant. He was such a sneak,” said Cox, now starring as ruthless media baron Logan Roy in Succession.
“Killearn was more sneaky than Hannibal. You know what Hannibal is and he is a particularly nasty piece of work. But Killearn, being the factor and being corrupt and all that toadying he did with the Duke of Montrose, he was a rather despicable individual.
“Then there was his horror, but also his fascination, at the rape of Rob Roy’s wife. He was thoroughly, thoroughly unpleasant. It was a great role.”
Cox, who spoke to us while on a flying visit home to visit his sister, Betty, said he has fond memories of making Rob Roy, filmed in and around Scottish locations from Glen Coe to Drummond Castle, Loch Leven to Loch Morar.
“It was a great cast, with Jessica Lange and Liam Neeson and all those lads, and it was a great shoot,” said Cox, star of movies from Braveheart to the Bourne franchise, X-Men and, of course, playing Lecter in the acclaimed Manhunter movie, which preceded Anthony Hopkins’ outing.
The night Brian lost his teeth in a freezing loch
He has good reason to remember one scene, where Killearn meets his demise in the icy waters of a loch after a run-in with Rob Roy’s wife, played by Lange.
“I was working with that great Scottish actor Brian McCardie and there’s a scene where Mrs Rob Roy stabs me in the neck and I run outside by the loch, then Brian has to drown me. Well the water in Loch Morar was freezing because we shot that scene at two o’clock in the morning.
“And Brian was wearing a basket-hilt sword and positioned me in such a way, I crushed my teeth on his sword and broke two of my teeth. I had to go to London to get some new teeth.”
This year also marks the 25th anniversary of another blockbuster from 1995, Braveheart. Cox is one of only two actors to appear in both movies, but it was a close run thing.
Rob Roy director Michael Caton Jones didn’t want him to shoot Braveheart in case viewers thought it blurred the lines between the two films which were shot more or less at the same time.
“I met Michael Caton Jones and read the (Rob Roy) script and I thought it was a fantastic script. I then also met Mel Gibson who said he’d like me to be in (Braveheart). I read that script and thought it was bold adventures, but basically a fantasy,” said Cox, laughing.
“I decided to do Rob Roy, because I thought Alan Sharp had written a brilliant script and Killearn was a really interesting character. Mel got back to me and said he really wanted me in his movie and asked if there was anything I could do. I said the only part that I quite liked was the uncle, Argyll, but he’s described as very thin and very cadaverous. Mel said: ‘You’re playing it’.”
He said he was drawn to Argyll because of the character’s interaction with the young Wallace and his words of wisdom about how to fight.
“And also, I make an entrance on a white horse… you don’t get entrances like that too often.”
Changing blockbusters without changing room
However, his choice didn’t go down too well with Rob Roy director Caton Jones who asked him not to do it.
“I said to him they are separated by 400 years of history, but tell you what, let me play Argyll with one eye and I swear I will look entirely different. I then rang Mel and said: ‘I’ve had a great idea, what if Argyll, who’s been in the Holy Wars, has lost an eye?’.
“He said: ‘that’s a great idea, I love that idea’.
“It all worked out, because the timing was right. The ironic thing was that I stayed in a hotel just outside Fort William and went from Braveheart to Rob Roy without changing my room,” said Cox.
As an interesting aside, Cox offered an insight into what could have been a sliding doors moment for both films.
“(Mel Gibson) had actually been offered Rob Roy. Actually, physically, Mel Gibson is more right for Rob Roy and Liam Neeson, who played Rob Roy, is much more physically right for William Wallace, because Wallace was very tall, while Rob Roy was quite short.”
Cox said both films have stood the test of time because they are, simply, great stories.
1995 was the year that changed everything
He is in no doubt 1995 was a landmark for him – and not just because of appearing in two of the biggest films of the year.
“It was a pivotal year in terms that I decided after doing those two films I was going to move to America, because I wanted to do more movies,” said the actor who now lives in upstate New York.
“I’d had a great theatre career, I had done everything I could do in theatre and television. But my cultural history was all about the movies, or as we called it ‘the pictures’. I felt it was my destiny in a way, that I really had to get into films.
“So I made a decision, based on those two movies, to move to America. But my calling card had been Manhunter (where he played Lecter) which I had made eight years before.”
Jumping the pond led to a slew of high-profile roles in blockbusters that he loved making, but he’s hard-pushed to name a favourite.
“It’s fairly even-stevens. I liked the X-Men and I loved Troy and playing Agamemnon. Then, of course, there was the Bournes. I don’t really have a favourite – it’s like saying, who’s your favourite child? That’s for me to know and you to find out,” he said, laughing.
“But I was very lucky and very blessed. It was the right time.”
His roles also won him global recognition with fans, including The Long Kiss Goodnight – the first movie he made after his transatlantic flit to Manhunter fans.
Winning fans worldwide in Succession
“I also get a lot of people recognising me as Uncle Argyll. He’s stuck marginally longer than Killearn, even though the better role was Killearn.”
Now he is being recognised for his Golden Globe-winning portrayal of Logan in HBO’s Succession, showing on Sky.
“We’re having a great time on it and they are such wonderful scripts, so it’s a phenomenal thing to be part of. With Covid, filming has now stopped, but hopefully we can get going in mid-November.”
Cox said he finds Logan an interesting character, if not particularly likeable. “I think I am drawn to the human flaw, I like to elucidate it a bit, that’s my job,” said the actor, laughing again.
Logan, just happens to be from Dundee, like the man himself. But the character’s Dundonian roots came about through a circuitous route, said Cox.
“I suggested playing Logan as Scots but Jesse (Armstrong, the show’s creator) wasn’t keen on the idea as he wanted him to be American. But then in the first episode I found out he was born in Quebec so I asked if they wanted me to do a Canadian accent, but they said, ‘no, he’s moved around and he has an American twang’.”
How Logan Roy became a Dundonian
But during the making of the last episode in the first series, Cox was approached by fellow actor Brian Friedman, who had just completed post-sync work on a wedding scene where his character proposes a toast to Logan.
Cox said: “He said: ‘You’re no longer born in Quebec, you’re born in somewhere called Dundee, Scotland’.
“I said: ‘That’s where I’m from’.
“I went up to Jesse and asked what was going on and he said he thought it would be a little surprise.”
It also led to the cast jetting from the States to film one episode in Dundee itself for the second series.
“Nobody was more surprised than me, I just thought ‘wow’ okay. So the cast came to Dundee and I had a wonderful time. Danny Huston (the actor who plays banker Jamie Laird) was with me and he said: ‘Well we all know about Logan Roy, but what about Brian Cox?’ So I took them on the Brian Cox tour of Dundee, where I was born, what church I went to, where my school was…”
Cox is proud of his roots in the city that shaped him both as a person and as an actor.
“When I was a kid I loved roaming the city,” he said, with the caveat that he hated the way the medieval aspect of the city around the Overgate and Nethergate was swept away in the 60s.
“But finally, years later, the waterfront has been reclaimed, with the V&A, and has become this amazing thing.”
Skillset involved going for the messages
He is always grateful to the Dundee Rep for giving him his start in his glittering career after a “pretty disastrous schooling”.
“It was a technical school and when you went to woodwork your first task was to make a boat. My boat looked more like the Titanic iceberg than a boat. I was totally useless at technical things.”
But he had ambitions since early childhood to be an actor and was encouraged along that path by two teachers, Bill Dewar and George Hackett. They pointed him in the direction of Dundee Rep when a job as a theatre assistant became open.
“The day I went for the interview was very strange because there was a fight going on up a close on the way to the back door of the theatre. There were two people shouting and threatening one another and one had the other bent over a staircase and was strangling him. I got passed. One of the actors in the company at the time – the great Nicol Williamson – looked at me and said: ‘Are you all right darling’ – he actually called me darling. And I just thought this is obviously where I should be – where everybody fights and everybody calls each other darling. I went for the interview and got the job.
“My skillset was taking the night’s takings to the British Linen Bank and going for the messages.”
He moved into stage management, but as he was young – he started when he was 15 – he was drafted in to play young lads in the odd part.
“Although my accent left a lot to be desired, because I was quite the Dundonian.”
Cox said: “The artistic director at the time was a Canadian called Bill Davis, who actually became famous because he was the Smoking Man in the X-Files. But then he was a young 24-year-old director of the Dundee Rep.
No resting on his laurels
“He asked if I wanted to go to a voice class. I had no idea that was but I said ‘sure’. He said they had this young woman coming up from LAMDA who is now a teacher. This was Kristin Linklater and it was a mind-blowing experience being in her class. So I decided I was going LAMDA. I auditioned when I was 16 and was there when I was 17.”
Now 74, he’s not resting on his laurels, with a new thriller Bay Of Silence, alongside Dracula star Claes Bang coming out soon.
He also worked with Claes on an innovative short created by Scottish producer Maggie Monteith, with all the actors filming their roles in self-isolation. The Agoraphobics Detective Society, is a whodunnit about a group of patients who come together to track down a renowned psychiatrist who’s disappeared.
“We made the first Zoom film, where there were three female directors and myriad cast from all over, with Claes from Denmark, I was upstate New York, there was a young woman from Los Angeles, some people from London, a couple of people from Dorset. These were people in lockdown,” said Cox.
“Actually I’ve been really quite busy, more busy than I thought I would be.”
And one of the things he was busy with was the Emmy Awards held on Sunday, where he was nominated as best actor for his role as Logan Roy in Succession, which won best drama series. He just missed out on the award to his co-star Jeremy Strong, who plays Logan’s son, Kendall.
While accepting his Emmy, Strong paid tribute to Cox, saying he shared the award with him.
All of which just goes to prove Brian Cox’s skillset has come a long way from going for the messages at Dundee Rep.